Personal statements are extremely unusual at Holyrood. In fact, in the history of devolution Thursday’s near tearful address by the embattled health secretary Michael Matheson, was only the third occasion that such a statement has been made.
MSPs suspended the Parliament’s standing orders to allow for Matheson to be questioned, following a highly emotional explanation of how he ran up £11,000 in roaming charges.
His defence was this: He should have replaced the SIM card in his iPad, that he took on a family holiday. He didn’t and he accepts this was a mistake.
When the £11,000 bill emerged, he asked the parliamentary authorities to investigate. They spoke with the network provider who couldn’t shed any light on why the bill was so high.
Matheson claimed the iPad was used in the discharge of his parliamentary duties.
Indeed, both Matheson and the First Minister have insisted that the £11,000 bill was a legitimate claim.
However on Thursday, Matheson’s statement to MSPs exploded that line of defence.
The health secretary said that his sons had been watching a football match. Whether that alone explains the full scale of the charges is not known.
What is now clear is that the claim was not legitimate and the insistence that this was wholly in pursuit of public duties was false.
Matheson’s defence to the charge of misleading the public, is that his family has since owned up to using the device for their own purposes. He knew this to be the case last Thursday but chose not to reveal it in a statement last Friday.
He put a lack of candour on this issue down to the fact that he was motivated to keep his family out of the story. Across the chamber there is sympathy for that point of view. Teenage boys will be teenage boys and all that.
However, the problem for Matheson is that in an effort to shield his family from this story, he raises questions about his own judgement.
He should have replaced the SIM card but didn’t. He should have spoken to the authorities before he went to Morocco, he didn’t. He should have insisted that forensic checks were made on the iPad on his return to establish why the charges were so high. It does not appear he was sufficiently robust on this point either.
The Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross says that Parliament has been misled and that Matheson has been forced to be honest. For those reasons Ross will continue to ask awkward questions of ministers.
The Tories are now lining up a vote of no confidence in Matheson.
Although that is not likely to succeed it ramps up the pressure. They will now seek to use Matheson’s statement to ensnare the First Minister, demanding to know if he knew the real reason for the high charges whilst insisting the claims were legitimate.
For Scottish Labour, Jackie Baillie said the timeline of events in this story went to the issue of Matheson’s judgement.
She said he made the wrong call on the SIM card. She said statements have been issued that are incorrect and she asked why it took until now to establish if his family had used the iPad.
Now there is a golden rule in the management of a crisis: full disclosure of all facts as soon as possible, in order to wash all of the dirty linen in one go.
This is a classic case of how not to manage it. We now have the dreaded drip, drip, drip where the person at the centre of the storm is deluged by events.
The Government will hope that Thursday’s explanation, coupled with Matheson referring himself to the parliamentary authorities under the MSPs code of conduct, will give them some breathing space. It won’t.
The opposition scents that a ministerial scalp will be theirs sooner rather than later.
However this plays out, the optics are terrible. The bill was not for legitimate activities and Matheson has been wholly negligent in helping to run up these charges and then not doing enough to establish why they got so high.
And of course, it has been parliamentary pressure that has helped flush out new facts which Matheson should have established long ago.
I have known Michael Matheson for over twenty years, and I have found him to be a diligent public servant and a decent human being.
But in politics personal qualities are never a defence when it looks as if you are about to be the architect of your own downfall.
STV News is now on WhatsApp
Get all the latest news from around the countryFollow STV News
Follow STV News on WhatsApp
Scan the QR code on your mobile device for all the latest news from around the country